9 Mysteries With Environment and Conservation Themes

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Elisa Shoenberger


Elisa Shoenberger has been building a library since she was 13. She loves writing about all aspects of books from author interviews, antiquarian books, archives, and everything in between. She also writes regularly for Murder & Mayhem and Library Journal. She's also written articles for Huffington Post, Boston Globe, WIRED, Slate, and many other publications. When she's not writing about reading, she's reading and adventuring to find cool new art. She also plays alto saxophone and occasionally stiltwalks. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.

Flatiron Books, publisher of Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

From the author of the beloved national bestseller Migrations, a pulse-pounding new novel set in the wild Scottish Highlands.

"So damn good. A page-turner that makes you think and has a huge emotional impact." -Jeff VanderMeer, New York Times bestselling author of Annihilation (via Twitter)

Mysteries, and especially murder mysteries, are ripe with dark secrets and deeds. Often they are full of forbidden loves, money hungry relatives, and sweet sweet revenge. But reasons for murder can be bigger than a few people or a family. It can be the very land that people live on or near.

Given concerns over the environment and climate change over the past several decades, some authors have elected to make environmental and conservation issues central to or a part of their murder mysteries. There’s a diversity of topics that mysteries can cover, such as the land that people live on, factories leaching poisons into the water, protecting flora and fauna from annihilation, air pollution, and so much more. Or it can be expressed through horror tropes that bring out the environmental horrors of the world. Anywhere there is lots of money, there’s potential for malfeasance.  That can lead to larger secrets like government and company coverups, which always gives an extra suspense to murder mysteries.

Here’s a list of nine mystery books where the environment and conservation issues are central to the plot. Some are a few decades while others are relatively new, showing that old concerns about the environment have only continued.

Image of the Bridge of Sighs

Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

When an American serviceman’s body is pulled out of the canal, everyone thinks it’s a mugging except for Brunetti. What he uncovers suggests some environmental foul deeds. This is the second book in the Commissionario Brunetti series but not the last book dealing with environmental issues. Future books in the series also have environmental maleficence at the core, especially the books from the past few years. Understandably so since Venice is being pummeled by rising waters thanks to climate change.

Image of Lake and a Pagoda

Don’t Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xiaolong

In this seventh book in the Inspector Chen series, the Inspector tries to take a vacation near Lake Tai, known for its beauty. But when he gets there, the lake is covered in algae, the result of nearby factories. The vacation turns to work when the Inspector has to solve the murder of a director of one of those polluting factories where the number one suspect is from a local environmental group.

Abstract image of blues, pink and black

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Beata Poźniak 

In this literary mystery by Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk, Janina likes to keep to herself, preferring deer, known as “young ladies,” to the company of humans as well as translating William Blake and other esoteric hobbies. When her neighbor Big Foot — her nickname for the man — ends up dead with a bone in his throat, his death is only the start. She thinks that it might have something to do with her village’s love of hunting. Exploring themes of justice, animal and human rights, this is  definitely not a book to be missed.

Image of Mountain Lion superimposed on a landscape

Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr

In this Agatha Award–winning book, Anna Pigeon stumbles upon the body of her fellow ranger on a hike. While all signs suggest she was mauled by a mountain lion. But Anna doesn’t believe a cat was responsible for her colleague’s death. She decides she has to investigate the murder to find justice for both her fellow ranger and the maligned mountain lion. It’s the first in a 15 book series surrounding the park ranger and murders in National Parks. 

Cold Skies book cover

Cold Skies by Thomas King

Former cop Thumps DreadfulWater just wanted to live the small time life in Chinook, Montana. Despite his best efforts, the local sheriff’s office pulls him in when people start dying. The dead seem to have one thing in common: Orion Technologies and new tech involving water and oil. DreadfulWater needs to figure out why people are dropping like flies and why. This is the third book in the Dreadful Water series.

A Siege of Bitterns book cover

A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows

This 2015 Arthur Ellis Award–winning book features birder and police inspector Domenic Jejeune. He prefers filling out his list of birds rather than solving crimes. But when an ecologist activist turns up dead, he needs to investigate. Is it a bird watching dispute gone terribly wrong? But then the bodies start piling up. This is the first of six Birder Murder Mysteries.

The Low Low Woods book cover

The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi

Carmen Maria Machado is best known for Her Bodies and Other Parties and The Dream House so it was exciting to find out she was behind this horror mystery graphic novel about two teenagers in the strange town of Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania. There are weird things in the woods and people lose their memory. El and Octavia become afflicted with that forgetting when they find themselves in a movie theatre with no recollection of how they got there. It’s time for them to find out what is going on. This work has underlying environmental themes. 

Rock Bottom book cover

Rock Bottom by Erin Brockovich and CJ Lyons

Yes, it’s that Erin Brockovich. First of two in the A.J. Palladino series, Palladino returns to Scotia, West Virginia, which she fled as a pregnant teenager. She built up a career as an environmental activist but pulled away after a disaster. She returns to her hometown when she gets a job with a lawyer who is fighting nearby fracking. However, when she gets there, she finds her employer dead. She decides that she has to dig up the other secrets in the town.

Smila's Sense of Snow book cover

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, Translator Tiina Nunnally 

This book brings up all the feels for me. I think it was the first time I’d read a book about a difficult woman, a category of books that really appeals to me. Also I was obsessed with snowy ice landscapes then and still am now. Smilla doesn’t relate well with people, preferring numbers, snow, and ice. But when a 6-year old boy that she knows falls from their apartment building, Smilla knows that it couldn’t have been a tragic accident from the boy playing. She begins looking into his terrible death, which may have origins in the snowy barren landscape of Greenland.

Want more novels about the environment from around the world? Check out this Rioter list as well as this list of eco-literary books.